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UNDIFFERENTIATED BUNNIES: SETTING PSYCHIC BOUNDARIES IN THE ANIMAL STORIES OF BEATRIX POTTER, JACK LONDON, AND ERNEST SETON W.C. HARRIS The Johns Hopkins University In his foreword to Famous Animal Stories (1932), Ernest Thompson Seton enumerates the "four well-marked types of Animal Story": the myth, the fable, the animal fairy tale, and the "literally true" animal story (v). But when Seton defines these "types," he threatens die very distinctions he has made. What, for instance, is die difference between a fable, in which animals are "human beings going around in Animal forms," and an animal fairy tale, in which an animal has "me mind of a human being"? How can one distinguish between animals who "think and talk like human beings, but live tiieir lives somewhat like Animals" and animals who "perceive, reason, and suffer as a man would do, although otherwise living the life of an Animal"? In both cases there seems to be no substantive and thus no categorical difference. What makes Seton's categories so fragile is die problematic notion of distinction, or (as Seton puts it) the "well-marked." The problem is not just setting boundaries tiiat cannot be crossed and re-drawn, but drawing such lines in die first place. The instability of Seton's categorical distinctions leads one to question the mechanics of differentiation, if not the very feasibility of making such distinctions. The problem of the "well-marked" is especially prominent in one of Seton's own animal stories, "Wully, the Story of a Yaller Dog" (1898). As the story of a tame animal gone wild, "Wully" problematizes one obvious distinction: the "well-marked" line tiiat differentiates man and beast, savage and civilized. But more is at stake than Seton's Darwinist platitude that "we and die beasts are kin" (Famous 11). The force of Seton's identifying with "the beasts" rests upon a distinction's having been made in the first place: the discrimination of himself as not a beast. Victorian Review 23.1 (Summer 1997) W.C.HARRIS63 Before one can identify with anyone or anything, he must first differentiate himself. Otherwise there is no "I" to do the identifying. Even if we can agree that identification presupposes the drawing of some distinction, itis far from clear, in the following animal stories, how one arrives at the first step of differentiating the self from everything else, how one distinguishes any 'T' at all. If Seton does not explicitly state that animal stories are about psychic differentiation, such a statement is implicit in his own efforts both to differentiate between animal story subgenres and to explain the psychological value of some of those stories. Seton praises the "literally true" animal story because it "aims to convey an accurate idea of the Animal's life and behavior, its mental processes, its trials and its methods of meeting each successive stress, in the great struggle that all take part in . . ." (Famous v). "Literally true" animal stories like Seton's own "Wully" compensate for what he views as the deficiency of the animal fairy tale — that is, its having "little relation to life, and no value whatsoever*as psychology" (v). Animal stories that are of "value" have a "relation to life," which for Seton is synonymous with being "of use as psychology." The phrase "relation to life" does not seem to refer simply to human life — in the obvious sense that animal stories, like works of art in general, are held to be about, or say something about, their creators. The "literally true" animal story has a "relation to life" for the same reason it is "of use as psychology": the animal's struggle is not the struggle of the human species but of the psyche (which is imagined as interspecies). "Wully" is not alone in its concern with the mechanics of self-differentiation. Both Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) depict boundary-marking as a means of differentiating, not man and beast, not species, but selves. A comparison of these three texts suggests that animal stories are psychological because they are·about psychic differentiation, about telling "out there" from "in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 62-113
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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